Referendum defeat does not necessarily have to spell trouble for government

Opinion: History will be kinder to Taoiseach if he learns a lesson and goes for reform

Does history suggest that a referendum defeat suffered by a government knocks it off course, or has it been the case that, after the wounds were nursed, it was just back to business as usual? Much, of course, has depended on the context, the substantive issue at the core of the referendum, and the degree of political security the particular government has had. Irish governments have suffered referendum defeats in relation to proportional representation (1959 and 1968), divorce (1986), abortion (1992 and 2002), EU treaties (2001 and 2008) and, most recently, before last week's defeat on the Seanad referendum, Oireachtas inquiries (2011).

In an interview given after he had retired from politics, former taoiseach Seán Lemass was asked about the 1959 and 1968 referendums on getting rid of proportional representation (PR). He responded that de Valera had always harboured doubts about the suitability of PR for Irish elections but "there was always the political question as to whether it was feasible to make the change and whether it was desirable".

The real issue, however, was when it would be deemed to be in the interests of Fianna Fáil to change the system. It was no coincidence that de Valera opted for a referendum in 1959 on the same day he resigned as taoiseach and stood for the presidency; he was anxious to secure the long-term dominance of Fianna Fáil after his departure. The electorate chose to elect him as president but to retain PR (by 52 per cent to 48 per cent) and, because they did that on the same day, were praised for their discernment; this newspaper, for example, reacted to the decision by declaring "Irish democracy has come of age; its political maturity is no longer in doubt".

Lemass duly took over the leadership of the party but the referendum defeat had knocked its confidence and Lemass lacked Dev’s pulling power; Fianna Fáil did not perform well in the general election of 1961, dropping from 78 to 70 seats, and formed a minority government. There was a subsequent determination to come back to the issue of a referendum on PR, but in 1968 the proposal to abolish it was again rejected, this time by a margin of 61 per cent to 39 per cent. There were suggestions that this setback could herald an electoral defeat for Fianna Fáil at the next general election in 1969, but the opposite happened; the party gained three seats, a result that seemed to shore up the position of Lemass’s successor, Jack Lynch.


Party divisions
As leader of Fine Gael, Garret FitzGerald launched his "constitutional crusade" in September 1981 and there were attempts by the coalition he led from 1982-7 to change what he and some of his colleagues regarded as outdated attitudes and laws in the Republic, including the law on contraception, which was liberalised in 1985, but FitzGerald was soundly defeated in the 1986 divorce referendum. He suggested this was "a setback to the long-term prospect of the two parts of Ireland coming closer together politically", but his coalition also faced other battles; the defeat was the beginning of a torturous time in government due to an evaporating majority and increasing rows over budgetary measures. There is little doubt the conservative wing in Fine Gael had a loathing for his constitutional crusade and this contributed to internal party divisions, but FitzGerald's defeat in 1986 did him little harm in the long run in terms of his wider reputation. He remained exceptionally active in public life long after he stood down as leader of Fine Gael in 1987 and, if anything, the 1986 defeat enhanced the sense that, in the words of historian Roy Foster, "the future was with him".

Abortion, however, was a different matter. Albert Reynolds in 1992 and Bertie Ahern in 2002 – acting on the implications of the 1983 pro-life amendment to the Constitution and the X Case Supreme Court judgement of 1992 – put to referendums the vexed question of the possibility of suicide as grounds for legal abortion, and were defeated by a combination of those who, on both occasions, felt
the proposals were either too liberal or too conservative.

There is no doubt these referendums caused tensions in the coalition governments in power at the time, but as this was such a divisive issue nationally, and because of an appreciation of the difficulty, if not impossibility, of building consensus on it, the political fallout was contained in the short-term. Virtually all politicians shared a distaste for the idea of bringing down a government or fighting an election on the question of abortion and they avoided dealing with it legislatively until very recently.

In relation to defeat of the first Nice (2001) and Lisbon (2008) treaty referendums, there is little doubt the results caused panic for both coalitions involved, not so much because of the domestic implications for the governments – after all, the main opposition parties supported ratification in both cases – but because of the question marks they left over Ireland's relationship with the EU and the evidence of a euroscepticism that had not been a significant aspect of Irish attitudes to Europe in the earlier decades of membership. Both treaties were ratified in subsequent referendums, but the defeat of the first Lisbon referendum had profound implications for Brian Cowen's leadership of Fianna Fáil, partly because it got him off to such a poor start and because it became one of a succession of difficulties that undermined him. Initial defeat in the Lisbon referendum, a vote on a treaty that Cowen admitted he had not read in full, was followed not just by economic Armageddon, emergency budgets, floundering leadership and the bank guarantee but also, in 2009, by disastrous local elections results for Fianna Fáil (it received just 25 per cent of the vote), which indicated it
had lost its self-proclaimed status as a national movement.

Political endurance
It is too early to assess the damage the defeat in the recent Seanad referendum has done to Enda Kenny. As is clear from historic referendum defeats, all have their own particular contexts and short- and long-term implications, and there is no one common pattern. Personalities, political endurance, the core stability of a party's vote, what precedes and follows the referendum vote and evolving societal attitudes are all relevant in terms of the legacy of the result.

What will be interesting is whether future historians will look back to the 2013 Seanad referendum as a turning point in relation to the reform of the Irish political system or whether it will be seen as a result that prompted a determination to maintain the status quo. History will undoubtedly be kinder to Kenny if, out of the ashes of defeat, he seizes an opportunity to give leadership on political reform.

Diarmaid Ferriter is professor of modern Irish history at UCD and was involved in the Democracy Matters group that campaigned for a No vote in the Seanad referendum.